In this monthly series, a Wicked Horror writer presents an unpopular opinion about a particular genre offering and asks the oft-repeated question, “Is it just me?” In this installment, Joey Keogh argues that long held up as a shining example of how to do found footage right, is actually more boring than doing the dishes, watering the plants or answering e-mails in bed.
Recently, in a promotional interview to support the release of Unfriended, the latest found footage flick plaguing theatres, screenwriter Nelson Greaves explained how the movie drew from “the greats”, name-checking The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity in particular. He went on to describe Unfriended as a “grounded, realistic found footage movie” that played off the “real fear” established by those two supposed bastions of the sub-genre. Nobody is arguing with Blair Witch as, aside from boasting arguably the shrewdest and most effective movie marketing campaign of all time, it still holds up relatively well. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, not so much.
I’m not here to tear apart the multiple sequels this little enterprise has spouted. With a sixth installment slated for release this October (the hilariously titled The Ghost Dimension), the success of which is depressingly guaranteed, that would be way too easy. Make no mistake about it, these films get worse with each new addition. However, as far as I’m concerned, the original Paranormal Activity isn’t as fantastic a jumping-off point as its voracious fans (of which there are millions) would have you believe. In fact, it baffles me that, six years and five rubbish sequels later, this completely overrated, totally vacuous movie is still being used to sell other films to us.
Writer-director Oren Peli (who also scripted the atrocious Chernobyl Diaries, for context) hit the proverbial jackpot with a film budgeted at less than $20 grand that went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and garnered predominantly positive reviews. By casting unknown, non-actors in the lead roles he ensured his film, much like Blair Witch before it, would feel more organic, more realistic. The comparatively modest suburban homestead in which the action is primarily set furthered this idea, while simultaneously keeping the purse strings tight. Audiences across the world were horrified and word spread quickly. It was the biggest ‘event’ horror film since Saw but, unlike the torture porn opus, it appealed to the mainstream on an even larger scale.
None of this accounts for the fact that watching two unlikeable people do virtually nothing for ninety minutes is really fucking boring. The thinking behind Paranormal Activity seems to be that building the tension slowly, through little suggestions here and there as opposed to massive, earth-shattering jump scares, makes even the most mundane moments terrifying. We’re supposed to be constantly on the edge of our seats, knowing deep down that something terrible is about to happen but not quite being able to guess when. Unfortunately, if you’re watching Paranormal Activity, you’re going to be waiting a bloody long time as, for most of its running time, nothing much happens at all.
Good-guy boyfriend Micah slowly opens the door to the bedroom he shares with the insufferable Katie about twenty thousand times over the course of the film but there is never anything on the other side of it. Not once. Playing on this idea, a decent setup with spilled powder is squandered, much like everything else in the film, by overacting. Yes, the footsteps in flour are unexplainable, but enough to encourage such hysteria? And yet not quite enough to drive them to flee the property immediately? Subsequently, of course, Micah is forced to remain in the house by a then-possessed Katie but what’s his excuse for the first couple of weeks? This film is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the great unanswerable question: “Why not just run away?” because even the characters don’t seem too sure of their motivations.
One of the biggest narrative flaws in Paranormal Activity‘s already-flimsy premise is the revelation that Katie has been haunted by some sort of demon for most of her life. As a result, Micah is understandably pissed to learn that she didn’t warn him, prior to shacking up that there might be some sort of paranormal interference afoot (although how one would broach such a subject is anyone’s guess). How bizarre that this little issue has only just decided to rear its ugly head, or that Katie hasn’t felt the need to seek professional help, or that she’s even survived this long.
There’s a general misconception that bad exposition is swallowed easier in found footage movies. It isn’t; it’s still clunky, awkward and irritating, particularly when the characters are speaking into the camera. Bad exposition is symptomatic of bad writing, which is particularly irritating considering most horror movies are scarier when we don’t know what’s going on, and this particular sub-genre can play on that more so than others because the footage is supposedly presented as is. Here, the footage is clearly edited and yet, when the film begins, the SDPD are thanked, along with the subjects’ families as though we’re supposed to buy this as a true story.
Found footage often comes under fire for being gimmicky, and Paranormal Activity exhibits virtually every cliche we’ve come to expect and loathe about the sub-genre. Micah films everything, refusing to drop the camera until Katie, quite literally, keels over. The footage, in general, is ropey but not stylistically so; rather, we’re left wishing Micah knew how to use a goddamned camera properly. The time lapses, particularly during the bedroom sequences, slow down the narrative considerably, as do the various moments during which Micah insists on watching the footage back. Crucially, none of this adds to the idea that this isn’t a movie, or to the atmosphere of unease that is supposedly being cultivated.
The main issue is that it all gets very repetitive, very quickly and it isn’t clear what’s supposed to draw us into this story or enamour us to these characters. Katie is a total pain in the ass and it’s a wonder she’s survived this long given the massive issues in her life, while Micah is cocky, skeptical and has a frighteningly short fuse. They’ve, presumably, been together a while seeing as they’re now co-habitating but their relationship never once feels real. More to the point, neither of them can act and even seeming scared or confused is a stretch. When Katie is possessed, things really take a hokey turn as her personality changes so drastically it’s a wonder Micah, again, doesn’t run screaming from the building.
All could be forgiven if Paranormal Activity had a fantastic, earth-shattering ending, but it’s all build-up with absolutely no payoff. Watching Micah getting thrown into the camera is cool, but the fact that he gets attacked off-screen is a total cop-out, especially as, about a minute later, we’re treated to not just a screamer ending (a million of which you can see on YouTube, right now, done better and for FREE) but one boasting the most disgraceful CGI face money can buy. Reportedly, there were several different endings to the movie (if you’re that way inclined, you can watch them all right here) but the screamer is the official one, for want of a better word. It’s difficult to say whether the film would’ve played better with one of the alternate endings, but considering the multitude of other issues, it’s doubtful. Taken as is, the screamer is disappointing and uninspired.
When it comes down to it, Paranormal Activity is little more than ninety minutes of two annoying people screaming because stuff is moving or falling over, and I will forever be baffled by those claiming it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever made because there is nothing scary going on here. Even as far as found footage goes, it’s been bettered many times over, not to mention how badly it’s aged in the intervening years. If the characters were likeable, maybe I’d care what was happening to them, or if their decisions made any sense, maybe their plight would be easier to empathize with. Or maybe, just maybe, if the threat seemed more real than footprints in powder or scratches on a Ouija board it’d be frightening.
The poster for this movie warns viewers not to watch it alone, with fans and critics alike suggesting it’ll make you feel unsafe in your home. The whole premise plays off the idea of the unknown, but in the end the unknown is too unknown to make any significant kind of impact. Personally, Paranormal Activity played more on my fear of being left alone with the two central characters than what happens in my kitchen after the lights go out. You know when you try to change the channel on the TV, late at night, but you hit the volume button instead and what you’re watching suddenly gets louder and it gives you a fright? That’s scarier than this. In fact, Paranormal Activity is too ambitious a title for it, as there isn’t much activity at all. Or maybe it’s just me?